After six weeks travelling around Malaysia, we turned our back on the mainland of Asia, and headed east for the next leg of our trip to China, via Taiwan and South Korea.
I am not sure why we decided to only make a four day tour in the Taiwanese capital city of Taipei. I guess it was lack of time, with so many other places we want to travel and blog about. It’s sometimes great to extend our stay in some of the destinations we visit, but we’d spent far longer in Malaysia than we’d planned.
Taiwan, through no fault of its own, was going to be the casualty of this decision. On our around the world trip, we often make decisions on where and how long we’ll spend in a destination based on transportation costs at a particular time. As we’re flexible with our travel planning and arrangements, we’ve been able to grab some bargain flights and visit places outside of peak holiday times. Unfortunately, many destinations that we’ve visited require that you provide proof of departure, on arrival at the airport, such as a ongoing flight ticket. We had not heard any particular recommendations about Taiwan, but something about the place lured us there anyway. Maybe it was the multitude of ‘Made in Taiwan’ labels I remember as a child growing up, I had a fascination to see where they were all made.
In the end it gave us a few surprises and all of them good. Our first impression on arrival was how relatively quiet Taipei was. It was not country village quiet, but we expected something more akin to Hong Kong or Bangkok in terms of people density and buzz. It’s a busy place, but has a calmness at the same time. Our four days gave us time to get a flavour of the place both in terms of its unique food offerings and some of the history and culture.
Is Taiwan a Country or a province of China?
The short answer is I am still not sure. I didn’t know it was actually called the Republic of China and its relationship with China mainland remains, at least for me, rather confusing. This is despite trying to read about the subject – have a a look at this Taiwan wikipedia resource and see if you can work it out, I can’t.
Arriving in Taipei
We splashed out and flew there by scheduled airlines with Malaysia Air. I had forgotten what airline food and free movies tasted like. A four hour flight from Kuala Lumpur and we touched down in Taipei Taoyuan Airport and had a wonderfully fast and efficient breeze through customs. We were out of the door within 20 minutes of landing, in search of our ‘Limousine coach’ to the city and hopefully find our hotel nestled in the Ximen area of Taipei. This was going to be a particular challenge, as we normally do this easily with the wonderfully detailed Google Maps. Since I foolishly updated my phone on the launch of the upgrade, we now have to rely on iOS 6 maps and to my horror, there was no chance of getting any detail whatsoever in Taipei from Apple’s near useless mapping software.
With the aid of a local map, from the tourist office, and some online instructions we made it. Staying here proved to be a good location choice. It was near to a whole host of gay bars and the cool funky downtown shopping areas around Ximen station. This is where all the fashionistas and ageing flashpackers hang out. They are trying to market this area to rival Harajuku in Tokyo, while its not there yet in terms of crazy teenage dressing up it certainly has a good feel to it.
Transport in Taipei
Getting around Taipei is as simple as it could be in a foreign country for English speakers. All the station signs, bus and MRT announcements are in English as well as Chinese. Its super clean, safe, fun and fast.
The best of all its cheap to get around the city with fares ranging from 20 – 40 Taiwan Dollars (TWD) - or about 70 US cents. The MRT gets you to all the main tourist sites, and where you need an extra bus to get the last few kilometres to see some sights, they are easy to find and clearly labelled.
The buses are frequent and will give you a great insight into local life. We caught a bus to the National Palace Museum and were amused throughout with the cacophony of the groups of local women discussing whatever was on their mind for that day. It was almost deafening as they chatted across the aisles and up and down the small bus. None of them seemed to know each other and as one left the bus and another pensioner joined, it seemed anybody could interact with their own opinion on whatever the subject matter was. Not sure what it was about but they were all extremely animated about it . Listen here
There are tourist information booths dotted about main train stations where you can get help in English and also register for your free Taipei WiFi The access points are at all major tourist attractions and at MRT stations. This really is a great service and I used it extensively while we were there and had a good signal wherever I tried it. Thank you Taipei Tourism Office.
The Taiwanese seem to have a very relaxed attitude to sexuality and we certainly experienced this in the hotels and in the bars around the city centre. Their laws are some of the most friendly across the whole of China and its territories. The government of Taipei prints its own free guide to the gay community and School children are taught about homosexuality and tolerance for sexual minorities from a young age.
We didn’t wander around to all the areas in Taipei, but there are a neat collections of gay bars located around the Red House Theatre in Ximen. The surprising number of bars, are set out along a strip behind the main theatre and all offer cocktails and beers with a variety of 2 for 1 offers and happy hour prices. Nearly all the bars have outside seating, which is a great place to sip your drink of choice. It is a really nice relaxed atmosphere, I guess the extreme posing you may find in the gay areas of London or other major cities, doesn’t kick off until the weekend.
Taipei Street Food
Having been spoiled for food choices over the last few weeks in Malaysia, we were worried we might be little disappointed here by the standards, we needn’t have. As well as having many of the traditional Chinese delicacies we have become so fond of, we found a number of peculiar and tasty Taiwan dishes.
The most unique an interesting is the double sausage( 大腸包小腸) in Chinese this translates as a small sausage wrapped in big sausage. This is exactly what you get. A pork sausage wrapped in another sticky rice filled sausage , in between they will squeeze slivers of garlic, basil, black pepper and a smothering of chilli sauce if you are that way inclined.
They also do a wide range of soya and milk drinks, locally known as bubble tea. Your tea and milk is mixed with honey or fruit juices and you add tapioca balls which you slurp up through wide straws. We tried quite a few different versions and they were all good. There are shops devoted solely to selling al these varieties and you can’t walk very far in Taipei without finding one.
Noodles also feature heavily here as does offal. You will see many local cafes with the various cooked animal organs on display which you to select to add to your noodles. We tried Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodles (阿宗麵線) which is flour rice vermicelli cooked in a broth made from salt-cured pig’s intestines, shredded bamboo shoots, fish flakes and other secret ingredients that combine to provide a simple yet lip smacking tasty street snack. They must be good as there are queues outside the stall whatever time of day you pass there. If you are lucky you will be able to grab a stool to sit and eat, otherwise you just stand there along with the rest of the crowd slurping your noodles. Delicious.
Another tasty street snack were deep fried quail eggs which are cooked so that the inside is still perfectly runny (watch for it dribbling down your chin) and covered in a very light tempura batter and then drizzled with spicy sauce. Really tasty.
Wandering is Wonderful
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Taipei is just wandering around the places on your travel itinerary as you emerge from the underground. You will see a vibrant way of life going on around you. Its worth just taking time to sit down with a bubble tea drink on the periphery and watching Taipei life.
It seems that Taipei is a hotbed for the followers of the Falun Gong is good spiritual discipline. They seem to focus on the main tourist spots here to let everyone know about the outrage of the treatment of the spiritual leader in the hands of the Chinese authorities. They spend their time meditating or showing you pictures of the atrocities levelled at the supporters in mainland China,. They get particularly vocal when they see a Chinese tour bus, there are many to choose from, roll up. Waving placards and shouting denouncements. Testament I suppose that Taiwan really is an independent country, even if it is claimed and overseen by the Chinese. Perhaps, that’s why China is happy to let many mainland Chinese tourists visit here.
We got through quite a few of the wonderful sights of Taipei while we were here and will cover those in our next travel blog post. We both wish we’d been able to visit some other destinations around Taiwan, but for now Taipei leaves us with some very pleasant memories.